12Mar Are eulogies the only issue at funerals?

For ten years of my life I was an ardent fan of Coronation Street on ITV. At the time, I was resident in a parish and preaching there; but not actively involved in pastoral ministry. I often found themes from the soap opera useful in my preaching – and one of those themes related to the fictional (Corrie) funerals the soap opera featured.

The funerals had some things in common. One was the very slight involvement of any clergy people: they might have been there, but their presence mattered little. In all cases, it was the words of the mourners that mattered most: particularly the eulogy. Nice words or true words or honest and even controversial words spoken in the presence of the other mourners were the most important feature of these funerals.

This trend in funerals is not confined to soap operas on television. Movie-goers too learn the importance of the eulogy in Hollywood’s presentation of the funeral rites. Even news programmes on television on radio reinforce the expectation: when funerals of significance occur (whether of high-profile personalities or of tragic victims), the short report which summarises the event usually highlights the heart-warming elements: the unusual gift brought forward, the touching word spoken, the unusual song sung.

It is no wonder that eulogies have become such a feature of funerals. People whose involvement in church life is slight learn how to behave from what they see in the media: hence the Coronation Street (or EastEnders or Fair City) influence on funerary practice. But even those most committed to their church have taken on an attachment to the eulogy that is hard to shake off.

Last summer, Bishop Michael Smith, Bishop of Meath, attempted to ban eulogies from the funeral liturgy. Acting on the basis of a discussion with his Council of Priests, he said that the funeral liturgy had a clear focus on prayer for the deceased, which would not provide the appropriate context for appreciations or eulogies by family members. He suggested these might take place after the Rite of Committal in the cemetery or at the wake. The bishop also sought to ban secular songs, poems and texts devoid of a Christian context.

Reaction to the bishop’s intervention was swift and for a few days it seemed talk-show hosts had little else to talk of. Instances were given of numerous high-profile funerals, where family members and friends spoke at length about the deceased during the funeral Mass. In addition, examples were given where the presider himself gave a eulogy in place of a homily, with little note taken of the content of the scriptural readings which preceded it. The question that surfaced was telling: to eulogise or not to eulogise?

I believe the wrong question was asked. Rather, the question should be: is the full funeral Mass always the appropriate way for the Church to mark the passing of one of its members? Particularly, is this the proper way to minister to one of its members who rarely was part of such an assembly for a long number of years? The baptized and confirmed Catholic may be entitled to a funeral Mass at the end of life, but is this always the most suitable, or pastoral appropriate, celebration?

The funeral Mass is a very particular ritual. One of its attractive features is its strong structure; but this structure resists local addition and adaptations. Insertion of eulogies, bringing up of extraneous ‘gifts’, inclusion of secular poems or reflections do not fit well within its framework. In some places, the pastoral adaptation made is to place all these elements prior to or immediately after the funeral Mass (and before the prayers of commendation). But this, I believe, avoids the more obvious question of whether the funeral Mass is always appropriate. (Indeed, one might wonder whether, if another type of liturgy were substituted in its place, some would even notice.)

If a funeral liturgy other than a funeral Mass were offered, it should be possible to include within the structure some of the elements desired by those who learn what funerals are from cultural sources other than church involvement. If there is no presentation of gifts of bread and wine for the Eucharist, a bringing up or placing of mementos can become a natural prelude to the ceremony, rather than a pre-Mass duplication of what ought to happen during the liturgy. The Liturgy of the Word put together in a non-eucharistic context might contain other elements: a reflection through which the deceased found the divine, a word or two from relatives or friends, a song that might capture the hope of continuing life after mortal death. All these elements would be out of place in the formal structure of the Funeral Eucharist, but a more free-flowing para-liturgy constructed locally to reflect elements considered important by the family of the deceased non-involved parishioner, might be a service to those gathered, and might also serve as an outreach to the unchurched, which the formality of the funeral Mass might not provide.

To continue to insist that the Funeral Mass is the only suitable liturgy to mark to passing of a Catholic would be to limit the Church’s engagement with those seeking solace at a traumatic time in life. The taking of a more flexible approach might open up the church’s riches to a whole generation little exposed to them.

This flexible approach might allow for the decorating of at least parts of the church in ways that reflect the enthusiasms of the deceased: balloons and flowers can both attest to transcendence, as can the use of colour and many media. Things that might not be appropriate in the context of a Mass might turn out fine in another framework. The planning of such a para-liturgy might provide a local pastor with a forum for sharing his own faith about the fate of the Christian because of Christ’s death and resurrection, and might indeed lead to an opening for Christian motifs that the war over the inclusion or non-inclusion of a eulogy would make impossible.

The seemingly easier approach is to concentrate on the funeral Mass and seek to adapt it to the needs presented by mourners today, needs that are heavily influenced by sources other than the Church itself. The braver and more sustaining in the long-term might be for pastors to recognize that all who seek funeral liturgies are not at the same level of faith and practice, and to tailor the liturgies offered to those who seek them.

Fr Bernard Cotter is parish priest of Murragh & Templemartin, residing at Newcestown, Bandon, Co Cork, Ireland. This article was first published in the Parish Practice Page of The Tablet of 9 November 2013. Reproduced here with permission of the Publisher (website: www.thetablet.co.uk).

 

14 Responses

  1. Shaun

    The purpose of the Funeral Mass is the good of the deceased soul, not solace.

    ”The funeral Mass is a very particular ritual. One of its attractive features is its strong structure; but this structure resists local addition and adaptations. Insertion of eulogies, bringing up of extraneous ‘gifts’, inclusion of secular poems or reflections do not fit well within its framework.”

    When I see stuff being brought up at any Mass, be it beach balls or teddies or wellies, I just think ”My God, is this what we’ve come to?” It’s such an embarrassment. I wonder what the High Church of Ireland folks would think of so much that passes for ‘Catholic worship’ today?

    I’ll be really honest here for the information of especially the priest readers: You may have no idea what liturgical abuse does to the souls of Catholics who just want the Catholic Faith, the Mass as it is supposed to be etc… I’ve now started driving 45 minutes to get to a Sunday Mass that is not a ‘pastoral chat show’ (the gravity of which depends on which priest says Mass. There is one young priest who is sound, but it’s a 1 in 4 chance of getting him), obviously at my own expense. Think of this perhaps when people are coming to you asking ”Can we sing this Father? Can we bring this up?” Well I suppose they used to ask you, now they just do it. You bite your lip?

  2. Stephen K

    A good perspective on the subject, Father. I think your approach is in the right direction, and bears thinking about.

  3. Mary O Vallely

    I think that this is an excellent reflection from Fr Bernard Cotter. There should be flexibility, a little adapting to the needs of the particular mourners, a bit of common sense, a lot of compassion for the bereaved and of course dignity at all times in the house of the Lord. Perhaps here in the North we are more traditional anyway as I’ve yet to see a funeral mass which has not been liturgically correct and with a fitting eulogy. (some done better than others, depending on the charism of the celebrant and the input from the family.)

    I recently heard a minister from another denomination announce that he was ‘a bit of a liturgical fascist.’ Each to his own but fascists can be overly demanding, lacking in empathy, understanding or kindness to others who might not feel the same passion for correctness.

    What is important is to acknowledge the love that is shared by the bereaved and to give witness to the good that the deceased did in life. A funeral service, with or without a mass, can be a great way of bringing people back to God. If God’s servants can mirror compassion, understanding and kindness, then maybe the Master might be worth getting to know again or for the first time?

    Shaun@2 I hope the liturgical abuse that distresses you so much doesn’t destroy the kindness in your own soul. Better to bite your lip than cause hurt or have someone turn away from an opportunity to meet God in you. I’m old enough to have learned that what matters in the end is kindness and if that is there, as Bernard shows us in his reflection, then that is what is important. Ubi caritas…

  4. Aodh

    It is so incredibly sad that it appears to be easier to have balloons at your requiem mass than the extraordinary form.

  5. Donal Dorr

    I find Bernard’s reflection stimulating and helpful. But I’m concerned that at least some of the relatives and friends of a dead person who hasn’t been a practicing Catholic would feel hurt and excluded if they were offered what they might experience as ‘only’ a para-liturgy, a kind of second-best. I think of the way Pope Francis, when he was archbishop in Buenos Aires, disagreed with priests who refused baptism to the children of unmarried parents, and how, when celebrating Eucharist in the shanty areas, he gave Holy Communion to all who came for it, without checking whether they were married in church. Inspired by his inclusive attitude I would be in favour of allowing the maximum flexibility in the funeral Mass, even tolerating what I might personally feel was somewhat distasteful or inappropriate—provided, of course, that the basic meaning and structure of the Eucharist is respected.
    My hope is that in future we will have a much wider variety of Eucharistic prayers to choose from. It would be great if some of them were very inclusive in tone and highly participative in structure, perhaps including choral responses from the congregation, or allowing well-prepared individual members of the congregation to read some parts of the text.
    I think it is pastorally important that our Eucharists should intersect fruitfully with the deep experiences of people today—funerals, births and birthdays, marriages and breakdown of relationships, conflicts and peace-making.
    So I hope that our Eucharist will be set free from the unduly rigid straightjacket into which it has been locked by liturgical purists and legalists, whose approach could have the effect of confining the Spirit within a multitude of rules. Of course it is vital that a sense of reverence, dignity, and a sense of the sacred be preserved. But would it not be better to safeguard this through liturgical education rather than by a plethora of detailed regulations? My hope is that our celebrations will regain the flexibility, and some of the Spirit-inspired spontaneity, which I believe they had in the very early Church.

  6. Ciaran Blake

    I think the sentence Bernard uses is telling, “The baptized and confirmed Catholic may be entitled to a funeral Mass at the end of life…” I wonder if this is not another example where participation in Catholic Rites is seen as a reward for good behaviour and conformity. Surely the question should be not what the deceased is or was “entitled” to but rather how best to provide pastoral care to those left behind. This would include facilitating the bereaved family and community in saying goodbye and letting go of their loved one. Situating this in a Community Eucharistic celebration would seem to me to be very appropriate, an example of the local Christian Community reaching out to the bereaved in their time of need.
    Ciaran Blake

  7. Shaun

    If anybody gets up during my funeral and starts eulogising about me from the altar, I’ll get up out of the coffin myself and scream, in a deathly tone, ”LIES! I WAS A SELFISH, SARCASTIC, SELF-SERVING LITTLE MAN. NOW PRAY FOR ME!!!”

  8. Bernard

    I’d like to nominate Shaun’s comment as COMMENT OF THE WEEK (or possibly even of the millennium!)

  9. Seamus Ahearne osa

    Dublin Diocese asked for proposals on a Policy for Funerals. This is from the Rivermount Parish Team.

    1. Funerals are one of our most important contacts with the wider Community.

    2. Those occasions must be tailored & celebrated for those who come along and who are mostly unused to being in Church.

    3. We cannot take refuge in the formalities or hide in the Ritual. The words contained in those books can easily make people feel uncomfortable. We cannot ever make them feel as outsiders by imposing our formalities on them. We adapt to what is must suitable for those who come.

    4. Preparation is essential for a Funeral. Many (bereaved) have no idea what to do. We as clergy (and parish team) are more used to preparing funerals. It is always better if there is a Team who can visit the home (several times), and prepare with them. Our Funeral Team is made up of clergy, parish sister and laity. One of the clergy and one of the other members visit with the families, usually a number of times, and help them prepare for this important moment (preparing prayers, a litany, choosing Readings, getting information for homily, etc). It should be noted that families very often relate better with two present.

    5. The funeral itself is put together slowly and gently over those sessions. It is good to involve as many as possible at the funeral. Several people find it difficult to read and are not used to reading in Church or reading Scripture but there are many other ways of being involved in a Funeral. Particularly, at the Reception of the body (evening before or morning of funeral) we try to involve the family in actions – lighting candles, placing bible, crucifix, photo, etc. We sometimes have them place symbols or mementos of the deceased person before the altar (at the beginning of Mass or Offertory).

    6. Every effort has to be made to make people welcome and to help them to be at ease in the surroundings of a Church. The Funeral team person with the priest helps to direct the family for all actions, Readings and Prayers and is there as a support in case someone breaks down. The priest calls on people by name (they are told this beforehand) so they do not have to be worried about when they have to do anything.

    7. We have to be careful that Funerals are not formulaic where only the name is changed. Every person who has lived, has a story. That Story needs to be recognised. Preparing to respect each person, is very demanding. It is even more demanding when people aren’t known at Church. However, this is a most important occasion and is our moment of Evangelisation. This may not be explicit but how we treat people on such occasions will remain in the memory forever.

    8. One way we have found to help families tell the Story, or remember, is through what we call a Litany. We use the litany in the funeral home (Undertaker’s or family) for the Vigil, and we use it (giving a copy to everyone) at the graveside or in the crematorium. On most occasions of a Month’s Mind and the First Anniversary we will also use some of the Litany.

    9. Follow up visits to the home are a real mark of a Christian community, and aren’t just the preserve of the clergy. Funeral teams and Bereavement teams have a very important role to play here. The encounters we have experienced as Funeral Team with many of the bereaved have been moments of grace and are privileged, God moments. We have been continually amazed at the depth of faith and understanding we have met – but with little idea how to express or celebrate it, or speak it out – that’s where we help.

    10. Future Developments: As we would see it, with the growing awareness of the role of the Funeral Team, especially suitably trained laity, will be the people to lead the Vigil Prayers the night before the funeral and indeed to conduct the Committal Services at the graveside and crematorium. This should be developed out of respect of the role of the laity and their call to ministry and not because there is a decline of clergy numbers.

    11. In conclusion: Any policy statement which is prescriptive: which documents exactly how a Funeral has to be done; what songs can be used; how the Eulogy etc is not part of our Service – will only damage a very precious moment. We must be comforting and caring and careful. A policy needs to be inviting and expansive, encouraging clergy and Funeral Teams to use their training, their imagination and talents to speak for the dead and at the same time comfort and evangelise the bereaved taking into account the reality of their situation (non-Church going; illiterate, poor social skills, traumatised, numb, etc, etc.)

    Seamus Ahearne osa.

  10. Shaun

    Thanks Bernard. You brought a smile to my face!!! lol

  11. Liam

    The mass is the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. It is offered to God In this particular case of the funeral rite to offer repetition for the deceased persons sins. Eulogies have no part to play in the funeral rite as that person is now judged before God for who they really were. Our thoughts should be focuses on praying for the persons soul as the church still teaches the reality of purgatory.

  12. patrogers

    Hear, Hear! I’m fully in tune with the Policy for Funerals as outlined by Seamus Ahearne and his Rivermount Parish Team. Catholic Funerals in Germany and Austria, which I’ve often celebrated on summer supplies, always include a one-page “Lebenslauf”, which is a dignified summary of the deceased’s life-story and social involvements. It’s usually read out by the celebrant, but will be written by the nearest relatives. It evokes something of the reality of the deceased person, but without the often maudlin elements one can hear in a recent Irish eulogy.

  13. Firbolg

    Eulogies as seen at many Irish funerals are simply inappropriate and often put an unfair burden on the close relatives of the deceased. If a close friend wishes to say a few words at the graveside then this is perfectly acceptable. It is similar to the growing trend where wedding celebrations often extend over several days.

  14. John

    Patrogers (12)example of what happens in Germany seems very appropriate. Also the term “Eulogy” seems to imply there is nothing but praise for the deceased person. A short life story can relate who the person was and what his/her life was like. This could be written by someone who knew the person, preferably a close friend. Better that than an impresonal funeral that consists simply of sticking the person’s name into the blank place in the order of service. Meath : I know from speaking to a Meath parish priest that not all Meath parish priests agreed with the bishop.


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